Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Of all the books I’ve read so far this year - honestly the last couple years - this one has moved me more than any other. It’s going to be a long time before I recommend anything other than this book. If you trust my opinion at all...READ. IT. If you only read one novel this year, MAKE IT THIS ONE. It’ll break your heart in a way that you need it to be broken.

I’m so glad I chose to buy a copy of this one, because I would suffer from separation anxiety if I had to return it to the library. I avoid spoilers below - everything I discuss can be discerned from the family tree at the very beginning of Homegoing or the cover’s summary.

Summary:

Homegoing followed seven generations of the families of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who lived in Ghana in the eighteenth century. The sisters never met and lived drastically different lives; Effia was married to a slave trader and Esi was sold into slavery in America. Effia’s family remained in Ghana and survived warfare between the native nations and the British, while Esi’s family survived a different sort of war beginning in the American South.

Each new chapter alternated between the next descendent of the sisters. Effia, Esi, Effia’s son Quey, Esi’s daughter Ness, Quey’s son James, Ness’ son Kojo...and on and on. Yet, the individual’s stories never felt rushed and each character was as real as if the three hundred pages were dedicated to him or her alone.

My Thoughts:

Although I liked both sister’s stories, I preferred those of Esi's family. Maybe that was just because I’m American and recognized the geography more, but to me it was interesting (and heartbreaking) to read about the family’s separations and how their locations affected their children’s lives. I also liked the first four generation’s stories (of each sister) best. The modern stories were great but reaching so far back in history at the beginning almost felt like I was reading a legend, which is the sort of stuff I like to read. And while Gyasi’s writing didn’t change, she effortlessly transitioned from legend to feeling like a modern tale by the end.

I didn’t have a single favorite character, but appreciated the romances. They were a bright spot in horrible times. Sam and Ness, Esi’s daughter, were forced together by their master but developed a genuine love. James Collins, Effie’s grandson, and Akosua won my heart with their willingness to be different. Actually, I take that back...Kojo, Esi's grandson, and Anna were my favorite characters and overall story. And of course, their tragedy was the one that broke my heart the most.

This book did have many violent parts, it never shied away from the horrors of the British slave trade in Ghana and slavery in America. I don’t think Homegoing should be avoided out of fear of the violence, if anything I believe that’s all the more reason to read it. We can’t forget the past, as awful as it may be. The beatings, the rapings, the families ripped apart, the forced labor even after the Civil War ended, segregation, modern day racism - these things were (and are) a horrible reality and I applaud this book for weaving them into so many interconnected narratives. Gyasi’s telling of the brutality was honest but never overtook the power of the characters themselves.

My only complaint was that I would’ve liked to see the current year listed at the beginning of each chapter. I could always tell generally what decade (give or take a few years) the character was in, but I’m detailed and wanted to keep exact dates in my mind in addition to the dates that were occasionally sprinkled throughout. 

I wish I could hear Esi’s great-great-granddaughter Willie singing right now; that would be the best way to end the process of reading this.

“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” 

Rating:

This book is an easy five star rating for me. Ms. Gyasi, I will continue to follow your career and novels. If your debut novel is this good, I can’t imagine what the rest will be like.